Subhuti asked, “Lord, will there always be people who understand your message?”
Buddha answered, “Don’t doubt it, Subhuti! There will always be people who, hearing the message, will adhere to the precepts and practice our way. Our message will reach people simply because it is true! There will come a time when many will no longer need words, but will be beyond words. We must all strive to go beyond the words, because words can be clung to, and we should not cling to things. Understand that the words of the Buddha are like a raft built to cross a river: When its purpose is completed, it must be left behind if we are to travel further!
Literary Analysis: The Weak Defense, Defended Experientially
I've been duking it out with some friends who studied Rhetoric in graduate school. Knowing me as well as they do, they'll permit a little good-natured rant without hard feelings:
In my experience, people who go on to get Ph.D.s in Rhetoric tended to major in English in college. That means they read up to six or eight plays by Shakespeare, one book by Nathaniel Hawthorne and a few stories, one book by Jane Austen (maybe two), something by William Blake, something by a Russian (maybe), something by about two African American writers, and the Odyssey. Add to that whatever literary fetish they developed on their own time: if they loved Jane Austen, maybe they read four of her novels.
Five to seven years later, upon completing a graduate degree in Rhetoric (a field that diligently ignores narrative as if it is not a form of rhetoric), having read somewhere between a couple dozen and zero novels and poems since finishing college (Wrangler), they feel confident enough to ask the discipline of literary analysis (a field that happens to be about a hundred years longer in the tooth) to defend its very existence -- and they ask, albeit in a tone that could be mistaken for politeness, as if they have a thorough understanding of what the discipline of literary analysis involves.
The first thing it involves is reading literature. Rather than reading excerpts from Moby-Dick, for example, a person in the discipline of American Literature may read Typee, Mardi, Moby-Dick, Pierre, Israel Potter, The Confidence-Man, Battle-Pieces, Billy Budd, as well as multiple biographies, letters (to Hawthorne and others), and upwards of a hundred related critical books. That would probably earn someone a master's degree in the field. To get a Ph.D., you'll have to be familiar with Melville's own sources: that means reading Bible (for example, the story of King Ahab, Jonah-swallowed-by-a-whale, Paul's letters, etc.), Plato, Aristotle, and Gorgias, Plotinus, Tacitus, Thucydides, then Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, then Jonathan Edwards, John Wesley, Kant, Hume, Locke ("So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right."), Emmanuel Swedenborg, Cooper, Irving, Poe, Hawthorne, and an article about Melville's father-in-law, Lemuel Shaw, who was a judge attending to a case related to the definition of insanity, and a margin-note in Melville's volume of Shakespeare taken (and altered) from Sir Francis Palgrave's 1823 article on the question of sanity.
And to rest on those laurels would indeed by a weak defense. To say, "Those things are inherently worth knowing, and sharing even some of that with our undergraduates cannot be anything but an overall benefit" -- to say that would be a weak defense.
So let me make one point. One single point. If you can understand this, you will understand why the process of reading literature and literary analysis has always been needed, and why it's not going away. I hope my point is not diminished by the fact that it is borrowed from Buddha's Diamond Sutra. After Buddha was preaching for a while,
The discipline of literary analysis is precisely like that. It is like a raft. It is not "the Melville" that is important. It is not the fact that, to write about Melville, one needs to complete a deep education in the traditional liberal arts. The knowledge itself is "throwaway." The process --the actual doing -- of literary analysis is the teacher.
But here's the thing (almost done): this raft cannot be described. You cannot understand it by putting one foot on it while you're an undergraduate (i.e., by getting an English major). Its outcome cannot be described, cannot be analyzed, but must be experienced. Read Emily's poem just one... more... time: "Conversion of the Mind / Like Sanctifying in the Soul-- / Is witnessed-- not explained--"
This is a final defense. What I am arguing is that this path must be traversed to be understood, and you have not traversed it. There is no way to quantify it. Precisely like spiritual "enlightenment," it is for initiates only, and you are not initiated. You mock the modern (and ancient) notion of enlightenment without having the experience of enlightenment. You are like the cynic who proclaims that love does not exist before he experiences love for himself.
So back to the original question: why should literary analysis be taught in public universities? I take the Weak Defense of Arnold and Bloom: the study of literature is inherently valuable and good, and does produce better people. I know that because I, like Arnold and Bloom, have experienced its converting power. The fact that you have not experienced the "enlightenment" I'm talking about is only evidence, from my perspective, that undergraduate education probably should require more literary analysis (obviously, the little you got didn't do the trick).
In other words: We're on the other side of the river. You'll have to trust us in the same way that some of you trusted clergy when you were young. And if you don't, when you are the Deans, send us packing. That might make for an interesting scene.